How much protein should I eat?

Protein is muscle manna, the ammunition you need for arming your guns. It’s built from amino acids stitched together into long chains, some of which your body can make naturally – known as ‘non-essential’ – and some of which it can’t. These are called ‘essential’ amino acids and you need to source them from food. When you chow down on a chicken breast your body breaks proteins down into their constituent amino acids, which it then uses to build everything from new muscle to organs and hair. Your mum was right after all. You are what you eat.

Are you getting enough?

In all likelihood, probably not. The current guidelines recommend you eat 0.8g of protein daily per kg of bodyweight, but that won’t get you Arnie arms. “Elite athletes eat around 2g per kg every day,” says Dr Karen Reid, a sports science nutritionist who's worked with the Wales rugby team, and the founder of Performance Food. She recommends getting near that level for the first 12 weeks of a new workout programme. “That’s when you’re sore, when you’re breaking down muscle fibres and creating new structures.” And damage plus fuel equals growth. After 12 weeks, if your wallet requires it, you can scale back to between 1.2g and 1.6g per kilo.

But don’t eat too much

Upping your protein intake won’t automatically lead to muscle gain. If you’re not putting the work in at the gym then it’s wasted, and will either be burnt off as fuel or laid down as fat. That’s an expensive way to gain unwanted weight, and could be harmful in the long term. “Nitrogen from the amino acids has to be cleared,” says Reid. “That puts extra strain on your liver and kidneys, which have to filter it all out.” If you notice dark, concentrated urine, up your hydration and feast onbananas and spinach. They’re high in magnesium and potassium and help to reduce protein-associated kidney stones, according to research from the University of Granada.

All protein is not equal

Our food pages are packed with dead animals for a reason. The protein in plants is incomplete; it doesn’t contain the full spectrum of essential amino acids you require. This means you need to eat a wider range, and around 25% more, to get the same hit as you would from animal proteins. But though our rundown of the world's best protein sources favours the carnivorous, adding muscle on a vegetarian diet is far from impossible.

Watch the clock

Timing your protein hits is vital to optimise your gains. Your body can’t process more than 30g of protein per serving, according to research from the University of Texas, so scoffing six steaks at dinner is a waste. “It’s not about having shedloads all at once,” say Reid. Instead, plan five or six small meals throughout the day. Bookmark these wallet-and-muscle-friendly recipes to stagger your protein hits from morning to night.

Eat around your workout

The most important protein hit is the one after your gym session. “You want that immediate stimulus,” says Reid. “Within the 30-minute window post-workout you’re looking to optimise the repair and regeneration process.” That’s when you want rapidly-absorbed whey protein, either by chugging a shake or a pint of milk. Reid also recommends a skinny latte for a pre-gym boost: “You’ve got the caffeine kick, the protein in the milk and if you try a banana with it, a bit of carbohydrate.” Pairing your protein with carbs is good sense. After exercise your body produces the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which break down proteins, fats and sugars. When they’re coursing through you, you’re not building muscle. “When you get some recovery nutrition in it counters those stress hormones,” says Reid, switching your body back into repair mode and kickstarting growth.

Protein for everyone

If you’re looking to pack on muscle then, obviously, you need protein to build it. But if you’re trying to lose weight then upping your intake is equally important. Your body only burns protein after it’s exhausted fat stores, so swapping carbs for meat ensures it's your spare tyre that gets targeted for energy when you work out. What's more, simply having muscle (which is, remember, built from protein) increases your calorie burn at rest. Plus there’s the handy fact that protein boosts satiety. Try this protein-packed, low-carb lunch to curb those mid-afternoon biscuit pangs.
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